It is the best of countries; it is the worst of countries;
Apologies to fans of Charles Dickens’ for borrowing, then tweaking, the opening lines to his iconic novel A Tale of Two Cities, but it seems a perfect fit for a nation whose citizens fervently believe they are blessed by God and ordained by his heavenly approval to be the world’s standard-bearers of freedom and democracy.
It’s quite a stretch, this ‘God‘s on our side’ thing, beginning with the Pilgrims who escaped religious persecution in the Old World and established their presence on Cape Cod by placing the severed heads of hostile heathens on poles outside their stockade.
Stand in the way of religious freedom at your peril, godless savages.
It’s no secret that the world’s most powerful country owes its foothold and initial prosperity in the New World not to the godliness and industry of its earliest immigrants, though industrious they surely were, but instead to ruthless exploitation of indigenous people and the evils of slavery. The country’s revolutionary hero and much-venerated first president (he who it is said could not lie through his wooden teeth) was a wealthy plantation owner whose various businesses flourished on the backs of black slaves. The redemptive value of Washington setting his slaves free upon his death is mitigated by the lack of cotton fields and whiskey distilleries in heaven, or for that matter, hell.
Before America’s friends and sympathizers tune out in a huff muttering about a lefty, pinko diatribe, it should be known that the Dude believes the U.S. to be the greatest country in the world. (Patriotic Canadians note, he does not claim it’s the best country to live in.) Its place in history as a safe haven for the world’s downtrodden is indisputable, as is its defense of individual freedom.
Beyond that it is an endlessly fascinating nation to travel. Starting in the rugged wilderness of Maine, the Meanderers proceeded down the densely populated east coast past towns that blended into cities then back into towns that blended into more cities–a mind-boggling congregation of ethnicity from every point on the globe brought together under a star-spangled banner that is flown with a naked pride that is inspirational to behold. Think of the Eastern Seaboard as a long human strip mall.
Though located on the same Atlantic coastline, the vibe in Yankee Bangor is as different from genteel southern Savannah as Donald Trump is from Bernie Sanders. Native New Yorkers are as close in temperament to the Texans in San Antonio as a Londoner is to a Greek in Thessaloníki, and separated geographically by about the same distance. But when called to arms in defense of their universally shared love of freedom, they are all Americans first.
And they are frequently called to arms, visitors to the nation’s capital are reminded at every turn. No country venerates its military like the U.S., from marching bands and flyovers at sporting events to nation-wide military discounts at golf courses, tire stores and restaurants. Nowhere is this reverence for the military more apparent than Washington, D.C., where tourist buses are stacked 10 deep at war memorials scattered around the national mall.
These defenders of liberty have waged war on both their North American neighbours, Canada in 1812 and Mexico in 1846. When the cavalry ran out of hostile Indians to massacre in the second half of the 19th Century the armies turned on each other in a civil war that is now known in the world of political correctness as the War Between the States. America fought in the far-off Philippines at the turn of that century and has been more or less engaged in continuous conflict since; in Europe during the First and Second World Wars, in Korea in the 50s and Viet Nam in the 60s and 70s. To keep the military sharp in the 80s, the U.S. invaded the tiny Caribbean country of Grenada, before taking on Iraq in the 90s and Afghanistan in the New Millennium. Its thriving military industrial complex exports instruments of death and destruction wherever they are needed to support U.S. interests. It is the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in anger and at least one of its current presidential candidates is threatening to use them strategically in the Middle East, claiming it is “a big place.“
Military hardware aside, the U.S. is the world’s predominate exporter of pop culture. Its movies, music and TV shows are embraced by a world audience and have spawned global phenomena like the coonskin cap, the hula hoop and the peppermint twist. Its cultural icons stride across the world stage crossing language and cultural barriers with an impunity reserved for the larger than life, from Davey Crockett to Elvis Presley, from Paul Bunyan to Madonna, from Babe Ruth to Michael Jordan to Muhammad Ali.
Its innovators have changed the course of history, from Henry Ford to the Wright Brothers, from Bill Gates to Steve Jobs, from Walt Disney to Alexander Graham Bell, who while technically a Canadian made his bones in the U.S. In this technologically advanced country that put a man on the moon more than 50 years ago, businesses still prefer checks (older Canadians will remember them as ‘cheques’) to a credit card. And in most states the credit card chip is new-fangled foreign technology, even in large national chain stores that favour electronic sketch-pad signature validation.
America gave the world Hollywood, Disneyland, jazz, the blues, and rock and roll and its stars shine the brightest on the world stage–Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong; Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby; Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn; Bob Dylan and The Eagles; Norman Mailer, William Faulkner, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemmingway and Ayn Rand; Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King and Mark Twain; Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry; John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe; Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump.
Okay, just kidding about that last guy but he makes a good segue to politics, which perfectly illustrates the best and worst theme of this narrative. In a presidential election year, the country’s news stations become de facto producers of the best reality TV since Ozzy, Sharon and the kids turned off the cameras. The Donald and his supporting cast of lesser buffoons made the boys and girls from Jersey Shore seem like intellectuals in comparison. Forget about binge-watching House of Cards, the presidential election was on every night, month after month, with special episodes thrown in where the entire cast assembled to exchange insults and schoolyard taunts. Behind the scenes, the GOP establishment, the same people who brought the world George W. Bush, wring their hands because their party is being crashed by a thrice-married, often-bankrupted, bronze-tinted man who sports an orange aircraft carrier on his head in place of hair.
And that’s just the Republicans. The Democrats decided on a smaller cast, pitting a rumpled professor-like favourite uncle character against a Machiavellian schemer with a questionable financial past who despite some hard political miles on the odometer and an ass two axe handles wide sold herself to Wall Street for $200,000 a pop. Not to be outdone by the Republicans, and no doubt playing on the public’s fondness for family fare like the Osbournes, Hillary ramped up the tackiness factor by including her philandering husband on the dais when she speaks, looking gaunt and guilty but smiling angelically beside his only acknowledged daughter.
This is a man who relieved the stress of being boss of the world by sharing quality cigar time with a White House intern barely out of her teens; a man who then threw her under the bus on national TV by referring to her as “that woman” while carefully parsing weasel words on the meaning of sexual relations; a man once accused of rape by one of his campaign workers. In what other country would a leadership candidate stand proudly with a proven liar and sexual predator who paid a victim (remember Paula Jones) $850,000 to go away so he wouldn’t have to perjure himself (which unlike lying on TV is an impeachable offense) when questioned in court about his notorious serial philandering.
You couldn’t make this stuff up, and probably wouldn’t want to. It’s too over the top for a pitch for regular TV. It’s hard to believe the political pickings are so lean in the world’s most powerful democracy. Can these really be the best of the best in a population that numbers 320 million? But then again George W. was elected twice, albeit the first time with an asterisk. (Remember those contested chads in the deciding state coincidentally run by his brother Jeb, and the resulting disastrous Iraq war that owes its legacy to 20,000 befuddled Florida seniors.)
For a country that places individual freedom above all else, the U.S. imprisons more people than any other country, more than two million in total, a disproportionate number of them non-whites. One cannot drive its breadth and width without passing frequent highway signs that warn drivers—Prison area. Do not pick up hitchhikers. Penitentiary names are ingrained in the public consciousness the way famous resorts are in other countries—Attica, Sing Sing, Walla Walla, Fulsom, San Quentin, Alcatraz. Beer drinkers at the Soggy Bottom Bar outside the tiny town of Florence, Arizona, where the principal industry is incarceration, watch prisoners in orange jumpsuits walk the yard while sipping pints on the patio.
The U.S. tops the world on gun-related deaths at more than 33,000 annually, with another 84,000 non-fatal incidents. In 2010, gun violence cost U.S. taxpayers approximately $516 million in direct hospital costs. Despite these appalling numbers, gun nuts continue to have their way with U.S. politicians. During our stay in the south, Texas passed legislation making it the latest open-carry state. That’s right folks, you can now walk the streets of Laredo fully strapped. The gunfights in the streets might not be staged and the ‘cowboy wrapped up in white linen’ could be you. The sporting goods section in Walmart would pass for a respectable military arsenal in Canada, and the customers are scary enough without easy access to guns. There are armed guards standing outside banks and in dicey sections of town the super market greeters are packing. Pocket that broccoli at your peril, vegetable breath.
Despite the political pandering to the Born Agains, America makes it easy for sinners to lose their way. Booze is not only available at every gas station and corner store it is priced to tempt the most stalwart teetotaler’s willpower. You can buy 48 beers at Costco for under 30 bucks (that’s four dozen for the math-challenged) and passable wine at Trader’s Joe’s for $2.49 a bottle. In party places like the French Quarter in ‘Naw Lins’ and Nashville’s honky tonk district, drinking in the street is strongly encouraged, with bars pushing four-ounce rum drinks in To Go Cups. Smoke your face off at half the cost north of the border. And that’s just tobacco. While Liberal-minded Canadians dither about legalizing marijuana, pot heads are growing herb in Washington, D.C. with full government approval. Gambling is ubiquitous, with card rooms and full-on casinos never more than a short drive away. And no need to trudge outside to suck back a butt when playing the slots, just lean back and take a deep breath for your nicotine fix. Chances are the slot players on both sides are chain smoking.
The founding fathers ingrained the separation of God and State in the constitution but with so much sinning going on from the political top on down, it’s no surprise that Americans are god-fearing people. They have good reason to be afraid of the final accounting. Not to worry, from the pulpits of grand cathedrals, to the alters of ornate temples and humble country barns, from shopping mall mosques to lavish flower-festooned televangelist stages, prophets and preachers, imams and rabbis, priests and a host of other pretenders proffer the party line. America is blessed and God is on the nation’s side. The President says it’s so.
What a great country.